Search for home unearths two cellars

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Search for home unearths two cellars

August 29, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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A fragment from the handle of a salt-glazed stoneware jug excavated from the cellar of Benjamin Banneker's first home, constructed by his parents cat 1731 and abandoned about 1780. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Trust.

Benjamin Banneker's few brief months camped out on Jones Point in the winter-spring of 1791 changed the course of his life. The astronomical calculations he conducted with Andrew Ellicott's state-of-the-art survey equipment set the stage for his first almanac, national recognition and the opportunity to correspond with men such as Thomas Jefferson. While we will never know what his nights were like charting the movement of the stars while huddling in a freezing tent, we are fortunate to have the opportunity as archaeologists to know more about his home life.

Banneker's parents came to the 100 acre farm near the Patapsco River in 1737 as free African Americans. He was truly a product of new immigrants to the Americas (although not voluntary ones)--his mother was the child of an indentured English woman and a freed African slave, while his African father had more recently achieved a free status. Banneker was listed on the deed at age 7 as owner with his father, and he stayed on the family property as a bachelor until his death in 1806. His log home burned the day of his funeral.

In 1985, the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks purchased 42.8 acres of the original Banneker tobacco farm. With the Maryland Historical Trust the Department has worked to identify the farmstead and significant archaeological areas. Robert Hurry and his associates at the Trust identified two cellar holes in 1985 after excavating 563 test pits (round holes dug with shovels) and 100 excavation units (five foot square holes dug with trowels). The cellars were great finds, but the task then focused upon excavating portions of each to identify their dates and uses. Prior to the archaeological work, it was assumed that only one house site would be found. Why were there two cellars and were they both Banneker homes?

The first cellar to be studied was labeled Feature 10. The archaeologists excavated through various strata of fill and found evidence of fire on the east side. Was this the clue they needed to help in identifying this cellar as the remains of Benjamin's home? Further work revealed that the burned earth represented the remains of a fireplace, no longer preserved. Large stones in the cellar may have been piers upon which the structure had been supported. After the building was abandoned, it is thought that stones helped to fill up the cellar hole. Ceramics found in the upper fill provided the evidence to date the demise of the structure at no later than 1780. Artifacts found in the lower fill strata date earlier to the building's use approximately from 1725 to 1775. This cellar must be the remains of the home built by Benjamin's parents. Apparently log, with stone piers and a mud-and-stick chimney on the east gable, the house had at least one glazed window opening.

Fifty feet away the second cellar, Feature 22, yielded very different information. A continuous stone foundation found underground establishes the building dimensions as 14 by 16 feet. The ceramics in the cellar fill were manufactured in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is likely that this is the location of the log home Benjamin built when he was about 50, because there is a great deal of fire damage--melted window glass, burned ceramics and nails, and high levels of potash. It was in this place that Banneker studied astronomy on his own, wrote his almanacs and corresponded with Jefferson to advance the cause of freedom and dignity for African Americans.